In a city as big as Manchester, you would half expect development. Even more so with an 80,000-strong student population – the country’s highest outside of London. In this age of widespread mouldy houses, dodgy landlords, and high rents, you would be forgiven for thinking that the student rental scene is a lost cause – a problem too big to solve.
First-year students moving in with “sky-high rents and piss-poor accommodation” probably think this. A room at Oak House, the centre of last year’s rent strike, now costs £113 per week. Richmond Park – my old stomping ground – will set you back £166. Unsworth Park, the most hallowed of student halls, costs a whopping £188 per week. Indeed, the cost-of-living crisis is biting hard in everything from food to rent. Like many other low-income groups, students are doubtless paying an inordinate amount in Manchester.
The crisis in housing stock only exacerbates rents. Manchester has the fastest-rising rents in the entire country – even faster than London. The city’s supply-and-demand problem is particularly acute in student housing, where there may be as much as a 23,000-space shortage.
So why have student groups, including the Manchester Student Renters’ Union, Manchester Leftist Action, and Manchester Labour Students, decided to oppose easing the burden on the city’s overstretched housing stock?
The Gamecock Pub development, long a contentious issue in the People’s Republic of Hulme, has become a fixation for those bored student groups emasculated by the failure of their rent strike occupations. This is without mentioning the hapless indebting of rent strike students (admittedly, I was one) who, taken away by the rose-tinted illusions of the first year, were promised to withhold rent from a vastly powerful and wealthy institution was surely destined to succeed.
A petition against the Gamecock Pub development, signed by student movements and disgruntled resident groups, has accrued more than 120 signatures, including 9 members of UoM staff. The lead organisations, Manchester Student Renters’ Union and Manchester Leftist Action have been canvassing their members and several non-aligned students to sign what appears, at face value, to be a noble cause to endorse.
The development will see a nine-storey tower block, the same height as the buildings immediately north and south, built on the corner of Booth Street West and Boundary Lane. The land is currently occupied by a derelict 60s-era pub that has stood abandoned since the 1990s. The building will provide 197 rooms for students in a corner of Manchester that will soon be enveloped by the ongoing expansion of the city centre. It will feature a common room, a gym, and many other pleasant, if superfluous, amenities. It is precisely this type of development that will help alleviate the shortages in housing for students, particularly when the University of Manchester attracts thousands of wealthy students who would be most likely to afford the £230 per week upper limit of rent.
The anti-Gamecock petition, submitted to the City Council’s Planning and Highways Committee in November, said that “previous rejections of the proposal… cited a failure to demonstrate sufficient demand for student accommodation and an intrusive impact on the street view and local buildings”.
These are both true. In a stunning display of just how little foresight the then-Council had, the initial plan to build an eleven-storey building was rejected by the City Council in 2012 – more than a decade ago – because the developers then couldn’t adequately justify the need for more student housing.
The city council presented a revised proposal in 2022 but were “minded to refuse” unless the developer, Curlew, took into account the objections made by resident groups. A “minded to refuse” notice means the developer should revisit its plans and make appropriate changes, often minor so that the council can debate them at a later date. It does not, as the petition suggests, mean the plans were refused.
But the petition quickly ventures deeper into the bizarre, going on to suggest that the location in Hulme is “considerably isolated from the universities” – despite being a twelve-minute walk from the Main Library or a 30-second bus ride.
It also, in a fantastic display of moral grandstanding, demands no new student accommodations be built in the city before the quality of current stock is addressed. A rent-inflationary demand coming from a petition signed and promoted by Manchester Student Renters’ Union – the very people charged with ensuring the exact opposite. Purpose-built student blocks both alleviate the city’s housing shortage and allow for other low-income and marginalised groups to rent existing stock without needing to compete with the growing number of students in Manchester.
The petition invokes the support of the “Block the Block” , a relatively popular residents’ group appealing to stop the building’s construction, who wears its NIMBY credentials quite literally.
Block the Block’s central objection is that residents in neighbouring buildings will have reduced sunlight on their terraces and gardens. This is despite the council report demonstrating that windows in the block immediately south of the proposed development, would experience “noticeable reductions in daylight to some of the rear windows,” but nevertheless “have good levels of daylight and sunlight and will continue to do so”. The report compounds this argument by suggesting that the current poor levels of sunlight in some windows can be blamed squarely on the balconies and walkways above.
In every other European city, the centre and its surroundings are lined with marvellous six/seven-storey buildings that are natural and human in scale. Why must Manchester be any different? Why must the young be forced to shoulder the burden of rising rents and dwindling stock because some cannot abide change? Why must Manchester be held to ransom by the all-too-bellicose objections of the NIMBYs?
And that is the real heart of this argument. The student housing crisis is not going to be solved by NIMBYs noisily complaining about a building that blocks some sunlight or is slightly too tall for their refined suburban tastes. Yes, there are obvious reasons for being weary of the development – the lack of disabled parking spaces and green spaces is worrying. But focusing on these misses the point. Times change, and so do places. Manchester needs housing stock for its students – the city can’t continue to drag its heels whilst its young people struggle with rapidly rising rents.
Both the city council and the Centre for Cities agree that Manchester’s urban core must grow if the region is to see the kind of prosperity that London does. Plans for a new city centre district in Holt Town signal the city council’s ambitions with an emphasis on appropriately sized and genuinely affordable housing. It is reassuring that, in the age of the NIMBY, there is one local authority that is going against the tide of narrow-minded and petty objections and doing what is necessary for the future of the place we call home. It is a shame that powerful voices in the student community are not.